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Big legislation makes sesssion a win for state

March 30, 2012
Shepherdstown Chronicle

This year's regular session of the Legislature was, I believe, a success. It was so not because we passed a large number of good bills but because we passed a small number (four, to be exact) of outstanding ones.

The most important thing we did was to fix our "OPEB" problem. That acronym stands for "other post-employment benefits" and it refers to obligations other than direct pension benefits we have toward our public employee retirees. OPEB relates primarily to retiree health care.

About ten years ago the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB), a national organization that rates accounting procedures for all levels of government (federal, state, county, city, town, school board, water district, etc.) ruled that these "other" benefits must be considered obligations just like pensions. No state had ever considered them such.

Every state was automatically confronted with a huge unfunded liability in addition to whatever unfunded liabilities that state already had. West Virginia had just a few years before begun to fix one of the worst sets of such liabilities of any state.

By two years ago we had resolved all of our unfunded liabilities other than OPEB. No other state had yet tackled OPEB, because of their own increasingly precarious financial situations as well as a debate about whether or not these promised benefits were really "obligations." Many serious thinkers believed (and some still believe) that states could, if they wanted, not deliver the promised benefits.

The Legislature determined that these promised benefits were at the very least moral obligations. After we had resolved the other unfunded liabilities we set out to find a way to resolve OPEB.

Prior to the beginning of the regular session the Finance Board of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) capped the annual increase in state subsidy for retirees health care at 3 percent. Retirees will pay a larger percentage of their health care costs than they now do. That move reduced the approximately $10 billion OPEB liability to about $4 billion.

Early in this year's session the Legislature committed $30 million per year of the general fund to retire the remaining OPEB liability. That is projected to happen by 2036. West Virginia thus became the very first state to put in place a mechanism to completely retire its OPEB liability.

We also for the first time made human trafficking a crime. We have really been laggards on this - 48 other states had done so before this year. We lagged on this issue mostly because some lawyers believe that human trafficking is merely a form of kidnapping and could therefore be effectively handled via our kidnapping statute.

I disagree. I think human trafficking is more effectively combatted with a stand-alone statute. Besides, our kidnapping statute has been amended so many times it's unwieldy. There's one paragraph that has over forty commas in it. Not only did we pass a separate statute criminalizing human trafficking, we streamlined the kidnapping statute as well.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin proposed a comprehensive substance abuse bill which the Legislature strengthened even further. Spearheaded by Delegate Don Perdue, chair of the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Committee, we passed a law more strongly monitoring methadone and oxycotin clinics, more strictly regulating the use of pseudophedrine and putting $7.5 million per year ($2.5 million more than the governor's original proposal) into substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery.

The lion's share of the debate on this bill involved pseudophedrine ("sudafed"). Last year the House passed a bill making this drug prescription-only. Two states, Oregon and Mississippi, had seen tremendous success with that move. But the Senate refused to pass it, as it was quite controversial.

This year we compromised on the sudafed issue. Without a prescription a customer is limited to 3.6 grams of sudafed per day, 7.2 grams per week and 48 grams per year. We believe these figures are high enough to allow normal users to continue their use but low enough to allow law enforcement to track sudafed purchases by lawbreakers who use the drug to cook mathamphetamine. Not only is "meth" a dangerous drug in itself but the "meth labs" in which it is cooked are dangerous places. In many parts of West Virginia meth labs in residential neighborhoods have literally exploded.

The fourth important thing we did was to ban texting while driving. This is a "primary" offense. The same bill outlaws hand-held cellphone use, making it a "secondary" offense for the first year and a primary one after that. A "primary" offense is one for which you can be arrested without breaking any other law. A "secondary" offense is one for which you cannot be arrested unless you simultaneously commit a "primary" offense.

We did some other good things. We passed a mine safety bill which makes modest progress but which I believe fell well short of what we need to do. And we finally created an office of minority affairs which will enable West Virginia to access some federal funds which we haven't been getting because we lack such an office.

The most important move for the Eastern Panhandle was the creation of a fund to subsidize bus service for MARC train riders who are going to be seriously inconvenienced when the schedules of the commuter trains to Washington D.C. undergo major revision. We again failed to get state attention to what I believe to be the two most serious problems with state government we in the Eastern Panhandle have. We lack some form of locality pay for state and public school employees and we're treated unfairly on the real estate property tax.

I'm convinced that the reason we've been unable to get these two problems resolved is that both houses of the Legislature are dominated by the Democratic Party (a 2-1 margin in the House of Delegates and greater than that in the Senate) while the Eastern Panhandle's delegation to Charleston is heavily Republican.

I've never asked anyone to vote for me because I'm a Democrat, and the partisanship in Charleston isn't as bad as it is in that partisan snake pit known as the United States House of Representatives. But partisanship in Charleston has gotten a lot worse in the last few years than it was when I got there 20 years ago.



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